A Northwoods Almanac for Dec. 8 – 21, 2017
Latest Numbers on Snowy Owls
As of 11/29, approximately 105 individual snowy owls have been reported in 44 Wisconsin counties. This is the largest total of snowy owls as of this date in the last eight years. To see where the birds have been sighted in Wisconsin, go to Wisconsin eBird at http://ebird.org/content/wi/, click “explore data,” click “species maps,” enter “snowy owl,” and then enter the date range (Oct. to Dec. 2017).
|snowy owl photo by Dick Lemanski|
Northern Highlands Citizen Science Network
In this momentary time bubble of anti-science, a group of citizens who believe wholeheartedly in science has arisen to try to fill the void left by unfilled state position vacancies, position cuts, and reduced funding. Dr. Mike Meyer, retired research scientist for the WDNR, convened a meeting of area citizens last week to share current opportunities for citizens to be engaged in scientific research, and then to facilitate discussion of what a Northern Highlands Citizen Science Network could become.
Nearly 100 people attended, including many leaders of ongoing citizen monitoring projects. Data from over 20 monitoring programs were shared, along with the myriad of ways to get involved.
We heard about water-based projects like the Citizen Lake Monitoring Network which began in 1986 and which now has over 1,000 volunteers who measure water clarity, water chemistry, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and duration of ice cover, as well as mapping aquatic invasive species and native plants on lakes all around the state. The data is used to show trends in water quality and biological communities, and thus understand and better manage individual lakes. Nearly 150 lakes in Vilas County have been monitored, and the data for each lake over all these years is available online.
We heard from the Wisconsin Action Volunteers who take many of the same measures on the 32,000 miles of Wisconsin’s perennial rivers and streams. Given the legal requirements of the WDNR to report the environmental status of all of our streams and rivers, citizen monitoring help in obtaining the data is essential.
We heard about Loon Watch Monitoring, Mussel Monitoring, the Wisconsin Turtle Survey, and the Wisconsin Frog and Toad Survey which began in 1981 and is the longest running frog survey in the nation.
And we heard from the Wisconsin Healthy Lakes Project which analyzes all the monitoring data and helps individual lakeshore owners, lake associations, and public agencies apply the science on their properties.
On the land-based side of things, we heard from the Iron County Citizen Science Project which includes an American marten study that was undertaken by Mercer and Hurley high school students. We heard from the Volunteer Carnivore Tracking Program, the Wisconsin Odonata (dragonfly/damselfly) Survey, the Wisconsin Bat Monitoring Program, the Hunter Wildlife Survey, the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program, the Wisconsin Rare Plant Monitoring Program, the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas, and more.
Of the 20+ programs that were shared, many are coordinated through the Wisconsin Citizen-based Monitoring Network. The WCBM Network brings together citizens and professional scientists to work together in monitoring and evaluating Wisconsin’s natural resources, and helps to provide technical and financial support.
I was surprised when a friend from Michigan who was also attending the meeting said she was doing online searches for equivalent programs in Michigan and found few to none. Apparently, citizens in Wisconsin are still doing a lot of important work compared to other states.
The good news behind the data collection is we require long-term data that can inform long-term decision-making. We’re all in this for the long haul. When the political pendulum swings back to respecting science, as it must, then with the help of citizen monitoring we’ll have the data necessary to honestly confront future issues.
New Loon Insights
Dr. Walter Piper in a 12/4/17 online post (see www.loonproject.org) reports that he’s discovered two new predictors for why loons may abandon their nests: lake size and the age of the nesting female. Dr. Piper just finished submitting a paper presenting evidence that large black fly hatches and their subsequent harassment of nesting loons can cause nest abandonment.
|loon covered with black flies, photo by Bob Kovar|
However, in looking at all his data, he also found two unexpected factors: “First, pairs on large lakes are less prone to nest abandonment than pairs on small lakes. Second, pairs containing an old female are far more likely to abandon a nest owing to black flies than are pairs containing young females.”
Why? Piper speculates that it’s all about energetics. Regarding lake size, he notes, “Large lakes provide more food than small lakes, so loon pairs on large lakes should be in better health and condition than those on small lakes. Well-fed, healthy adults with strong immune systems should be better able to cope with the blood loss and exposure to blood-borne pathogens.”
As for why older females are more likely to abandon their nests, he conjectures, “Old females senesce . . . it stands to reason that old females are in poorer body condition and are more likely to abandon nests when attacked viciously by black flies. Reproductive decline among old females is widespread in animals, and the tendency of old female loons to abandon nests more readily seems consistent with that pattern.”
Dr. Piper has studied loons on nearly 200 lakes in Oneida County since 1993. He along with Dr. Mike Meyer, retired wildlife toxicologist for the WDNR, lead the way nationally with their research on loon behavior, reproduction, habitat selection, migration, and the impacts of mercury and various diseases. Their exceptional scientific work has placed northcentral Wisconsin at the epicenter of loon research.
Alan Haney - Science on Tap
Speaking of loons, Alan Haney, Emeritus Professor of Forestry at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, and an ecologist with over 40 years of field experience spoke at November’s Science on Tap in Minocqua. When asked about which local bird species may be extirpated from our area due to climate change, he noted that common loons are very likely to be extirpated from Wisconsin by 2050. This brought an audible gasp from the audience who I suspect hadn’t fully considered the impact of warming temperatures on our northern lakes.
Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report in 2014 noted that the common loon breeding range is likely to shrink 56% by 2080, shifting well north of Wisconsin. Loons are also projected to lose 75% of their current winter range with warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nest cameras have shown that incubating loons start to pant at 75°F, which is their normal response to warmer temperatures. As temperatures rise, adults spend more time off the nest to cool off, leaving the eggs prone to predators. In addition, preliminary research indicates that the porosity of egg shells changes at high temperatures, which can negatively affect the developing egg. Climate models also predict an increase in large rain events, something we’ve already seen in the Northwoods and around the country, which can lead to more flooded nests.
A loon stressed by heat, high parasite loads, mercury, and changes in food resources will likely be more vulnerable to infection and less resistant to the effects of stress. In addition, diseases may be introduced from further south, exposing loons and other wildlife to new pathogens to which they have no resistance. In 2015, for instance, a common loon in New England was found dead from avian malaria, the first known case of a loon dying of the tropical disease.
It’s all about location, location, location – or habitat, habitat, habitat. As habitats change, birds have to move to another place with the right conditions for them. As waters continue to warm, loons will have little choice but to move further north.
Winter solstice occurs on 12/21 this year, and it means different things to different people. It marks the day with the shortest period of daylight and the longest night, but it also marks the beginning of lengthening days and shortening nights. It’s considered the official start of winter, though in the Northwoods, we all know winter started quite a while ago.
It also signals a rebirth, a reawakening, a cause for celebration. Many Neolithic archaeological sites such as Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland were aligned to capture the sun perfectly on the winter and summer solstice, indicating how profoundly significant those astronomical events were to them. The reversal of the sun’s ebbing offered promise ahead. The year was considered completed, and a rebirth was now at hand even though they knew January and February would still bring tremendous hardships.
Latitude determines just how dark your winter solstice will be. The length of the day in Minocqua will be 8 hours and 39 minutes. But further north in Fairbanks, Alaska, they’ll only see 3 hours and 41 minutes. However, in Honolulu, where they’ll experience 10 hours and 50 minutes of daylight, they could be sun-bathing!
Below the equator, the opposite is true, of course – it’s summer solstice. In Buenos Aires, Argentina, they’ll feel the sun’s warmth for 14 hours and 28 minutes. In Melbourne, Australia, they’ll see even more sunshine – 14 hours and 47 minutes worth.
The short days may influence some to seek airfare to the southern hemisphere, but remember, this is the rebirth. The sun will slowly rise earlier and set later, and there’s definitely promise in that.
Christmas Bird Counts
The 25th annual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count takes place on 12/16, while the 21st annual Minocqua Christmas Bird Count takes place on 12/14. If on those days you see suspicious looking people eyeballing your bird feeders with binoculars, this will be the reason.
From 12/5 to 12/14, the year’s earliest sunsets will occur at 4:14 On 12/15, the sun will finally begin setting one minute later every day.
Look before dawn for Mars and Jupiter bright in the east.
In the late evening of 12/13 and early morning of 12/14, look for the peak Geminid meteor shower. This shower can reach 120 meteors per hour, so this is worth bundling up for.
Quote for the Week
“The solstice once was an occasion for awe, when the ancient pleaded with the sun to refrain from vanishing into outer darkness. Year after year the prayers were answered. The sun did turn back form the abyss . . . [Today] we are confident that the sun will turn back from the abyss, but we aren’t at all sure what man will do next.” Hal Borland